Boris Johnson’s coronavirus press briefing this evening was largely an upbeat discussion of how the vaccination programme is being rolled out, including a look at the logistical side of things with Brigadier Phil Prosser. So far, nearly 1.5 million people have been given the vaccine across the UK, and the Prime Minister said there was sufficient supply for all the top four priority groups to have been immunised by 15 February.
This is all very well, but the reason we are in the current lockdown is that ministers want to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed before the vaccines have been rolled out. It’s now not clear this will happen: today the Health Service Journal has a leaksuggesting London hospitals could be overwhelmed within a fortnight, while yesterday Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese warned the city’s hospitals were ‘at serious risk of falling over’. Hospitals in the Midlands could run out of critical care beds in two weeks, according to this report, and patients are being shipped around the country to areas under less pressure.
At the briefing, NHS boss Sir Simon Stevens did say that the London Nightingale would be reopening next week both as a hospital and a vaccination centre – but the retort of many working within the health service will be that the biggest problem is not so much bricks and mortar, as the workforce shortages which were obvious in the NHS long before the pandemic. Ministers were unlikely to be able to resolve the staffing challenges in just months, but when the inquiry into this crisis is held, it will have to examine in great detail whether moving sooner into lockdown would have been a smarter response given the reality on many wards.
Beyond the critical pressures over the next few weeks, there are a number of long-term questions for those responsible for the health service. Firstly, how will the health service deal with the impact of this pandemic on staff? They are exhausted, traumatised and now feeling deeply insulted by the people claiming that their wards are empty. Johnson today said the people claiming Covid was a hoax ‘need to grow up’, while Stevens showed real anger when he told such people that ‘you are not only responsible for potentially changing behaviour that will kill people, but it is an insult to the nurse coming home from 12 hours in critical care having worked her guts out under the most demanding and trying of circumstances’.
Secondly, there is work underway to examine how on earth to clear the backlog in care caused by the pandemic. The next few weeks will not only make this backlog worse, but also likely weaken the capability of the health service to deal with it. There is little open discussion of this at present, but it will soon dominate the political agenda, to the extent that Matt Hancock may not have as ‘great’ a summer as he tells this magazine he’s looking forward to.
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